Several members from Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) visited Bethlehem on Friday, January 27th. CCUSA represents a network of Catholic charities across the United States that supports the work of local agencies in their efforts to reduce poverty, support families, and empower communities. The CCUSA delegation in Bethlehem toured the Holy Land in order to assess the impact of their projects in the region through CRS. As part of their tour, they toured Yousef Habash’s Olive Wood Workshop, located in the Old City near the Church of the Nativity.
The workshop was recently renovated through the combined efforts of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society (HLHCS), and the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF). All three organizations were represented during CCUSA’s visit by HCEF Regional Director, Eng. Anthony Habash; CRS Project Manager, Hana Nasrallah; and HLHCS Director of Public Relations, Basma Barham.
HCEF’s Regional Director provided the CCUSA members a brief introduction about the current status of olive wood and mother of pearl workshops in Palestine. He described the deep historical and cultural ties of the handicraft tradition with the Christians of Palestine, particularly strong in the Bethlehem area.
The CCUSA delegation learned how the handicraft tradition is suffering due the effects of the Israeli occupation and a general negligence towards the working conditions of craftsmen. Craftsmen suffer both from economic restrictions imposed by Israel and, more directly, from breathing in unfiltered fine particles that have resulted in several cases of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. These factors have greatly discouraged younger generations from taking up the work of their fathers, leaving the handicraft tradition, considered to be a central part of Christian Palestinian identity, under threat of extinction.
Despite the challenges before Christians in the Holy Land, HCEF’s programs offer a bit of hope. HCEF’s recent Handicraft Workshop Development (HWD) pilot project, completed in partnership with CRS and HLHCS, is proof of such hope, revealing that there are individuals and organizations able and willing to restore dignity among the handicraft workers of Palestine. Through the project, workshops were renovated and state of the art suction and filtration systems were installed to prevent fine particles from entering workers’ lungs.
HCEF also shared its plan to open The Bethlehem Museum in the near future, which will, among other artifacts, display historical olive wood and mother of pearl pieces in its exhibitions. Along with being able to directly support craftsmen by purchasing their works, The Bethlehem Museum will provide tourists the opportunity to learn the history of the handicraft tradition. Tourists will gain a deeper appreciation for the role handicrafts have played in shaping the identity of Palestinian Christians, and they will be encouraged to help preserve this tradition into the future.
The CCUSA members met with Yousef Habash and his employees at his olivewood workshop, recently renovated under the HWD project. Upon their departure, the workshop director thanked CCUSA for taking the time to visit him and presented John Young, President and CEO of CCUSA, and Sr. Linda Yankoski, CCUSA Board of Trustees Chair, with two beautiful and moving olivewood pieces tiled, “The Reconciliation,” depicting Jesus Christ forgiving the unbeliever who hung beside him at his crucifixion.
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